Glamour and Violence in Secuestro Express

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Secuestro Express (2005) tells the story of two young rich Venezuelans who, on their way from leaving a club, are kidnapped by a group of criminals. After spending extended time in their custody, their true personalities are revealed and the line between good and evil gets blurred.

The Rise of Chavez

The 1989 Riots

Carlos Andres Perez was elected president for a second time in 1989. When Perez assumed the presidency, Venezuela had almost $35 billion in foreign debt. He was therefore forced to borrow money from the IMF, which mandated drastic economic and fiscal reforms, especially in the areas of economic restructuring and the reduction of public spending. The president also faced low crude oil prices and the economic consequences. In current dollars, the 1989 price of a barrel of Venezuelan oil was about half of what it was in 1974. The adoption of new economic measures signaled that one of the traditional rules of the Venezuela political system- the creation of a consensus- was being ignored. Under Perez, inflation reached an unprecedented 150% and new austerity measures were announced. The economic package affected almost all of the Venezuelan population, especially the poor, and provoked a social explosion that ended only after more than 300 people died at the hands of the troops or police. On February 4, 1992, army forces in several cities including Caracas simultaneously moved against the government with 17 military units and battalions. The group of commanders who led the unsuccessful attempt included Hugo Chavez. When he saw the plan would fail, he went on TV and called for his fellow conspirators to surrender their arms as he assumed full responsibility for the defeat. Allegations of a secret fund for Perez came out and at the end of 1992, the Supreme Court received the request for a trial. 

Rafael Caldera

In August, Congress voted to bar him from returning to power even if the investigation were to find him innocent and Rafael Caldera assumed the presidency for the second time. According to Human Rights Watch, the Caldera administration claimed that the crisis of the financial system, exchange market instability, and speculation mandated that the administration suspend guarantees that, among other things, protected against arbitrary searches and arrests, protected the freedom of movement, the expropriation of property without compensation, and the right to engage in any legal economic activity.

Under his presidency, Hugo Chavez was also released and he became a symbol of the opposition to the 1958 Venezuelan political model and by 1998, Chavez won the election with 56.2% of the vote. He promised to represent the poor, dissolve the national Congress, eradicate corruption and distribute the nation’s resources more equitably. Following his election, Chavez began to prepare for the drafting of a new constitution. New elections were held for a Constitutional Assembly, which drafted a new set of laws in 1999. He appointed a new board of directors for Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) which caused some members to oppose and trade unions struck. 500,000 people rallied on April 11, 2002, in support of the general strike and the PDVSA protest. 

Hugo Chavez & Fidel Castro

National guardsmen clashed with the protesters, killing more than 15 and injuring over 100 more. The military rebelled and Chavez resigned on April 12 only to return two days later with the support of the air force. As 2003 began, Venezuela found itself in the throes of a general strike by oil industry management intent on ousting Chavez. He responded by replacing upper management of the PDVSA and dismissing 18,000 employees. The board members sued and the courts supported them but the government ignored the ruling. By May, the oil industry recovered and the opposition began to focus on political strategies. The president began to shore up his constituency through a series of missions to eradicate poverty and illiteracy with the aid of the Cuban government. 15,000 Cuban doctors were enlisted to provide free health care for the poor. Cuban teachers were enlisted to train teachers to educate students. Another mission was established to encourage high school dropouts to graduate and put them in the workforce. A food distribution network was established which offered food at slightly below market rates. He enacted radical land reform as well. In foreign affairs, Chavez set up the Telesur news channel to offset US cable news and maintained close ties with Cuba. But with Venezuela still oil-dependent, there can be no real hope for change. As we have seen, Venezuela has seen more violence and instability in recent years. Oil can’t wash away those stains.

The Victim

Secuestro Express

It’s really hard to tell in this film who the villains are and who the heroes are. One would expect that a crime film that critiques Chavez at the height of his power, would be bereft of subtlety and be an entirely pro-capitalist anthem. That is not the case with this film. It’s easy to make the victims of the kidnapping the real heroes of the story but the two characters represent the different ends that wealth can bring. The woman, Carla, is an altruistic person who spends her time working in a hospital with needy children. Her fiance, Martin, on the other hand, seems to be an entirely self-absorbed, spoiled rich kid. There is no possible way you could ever root for him. The two spectrums of wealth and privilege are equally represented with these two characters. The kidnappers also complicate our views of a criminal. They don’t do this because they love violence although some of them relish the power they hold over their captives, they do this because they have to. Most of them have families they would rather be with and near the end when Carla asks why it is a crime to have money, the leader gives her a great answer. He tells her that people can’t help but hate her when they see her flashy clothes and car but in the end, it’s no one’s fault. In the end Carla and the gang leader both change. He helps her escape when another gang tries to take her and she gets a less flashy car. For the director Jonathan Jakubowicz, no one except Chavez is to blame for the situation.

Stylistic Limitations

It’s important to note that this film was made on the heels of City of God. This modern Brazilian classic was an incredibly stylistic story of the crime and violence in the favelas of Rio from the point of view of a young boy who lived there. Miramax acquired it and distributed it to great acclaim worldwide. Secuestro Express is very clearly trying to be that and the Miramax intro at the beginning of the film definitely cements that the investors wanted it to be that too. All of the characters are introduced with comic-book-style effects and zany images. Bright colors flood the screen and it seems like we find our own little City of God right in Caracas. The only problem is City of God is from the point of view of someone who spent their entire life in a favela. The protagonists of our story are the rich captives so the stylization becomes much more problematic. The glamorized hangouts of the criminals and the gang tattoos seem to be a part of the fetishization of the poor. 

Secuestro Express

It ends up being a hollow view of the poor of Caracas. That isn’t the only element of the story that I wish was changed. When the gang members take Carla and Martin to the house of a drug dealer who also falls under the “raging queen” stereotype category, things take a turn. Martin recognizes this criminal and when Carla is away, he has sex with him. When Carla comes back, she is shocked and as an audience member, we don’t know what’s supposed to be worse in the director’s eyes: the fact that he’s gay or that he’s connected to a criminal. After that point, Martin’s demeanor completely changes. He was a bit of a prick before but now he’s monstrous. He escapes and tells the criminals that it doesn’t matter if they kill Carla or not. Are we supposed to believe that the gay sex awakened something evil in him? If Jakubowicz spent less time working on being City of God 2 and more time on ambiguity, we’d have had a much better movie.

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